Monday 25 September 2006

Bad Traffic, Part Four

Bad Traffic is a short story of five chapters, posted over five week days -- by me, your corrosive host, Cheeseburger Brown.

This story should only be read in a well ventilated area. If you feel dizzy or light-headed suspend use and have a glass of water.

The week opens with our penultimate chapter:


Alishaer was making rounds of the parking lot stepping on his own shadow when Yves waved for his attention, hanging off the side of his truck. Alishaer jogged over as Yves pulled on his jacket and turned on the motor. The truck chortled happily, brown rings of warm, greasy soot chuffing from its pipes.

"We are going now, Mr. Yves?"

Yves nodded. "We are going now."

There was patchy rain across Nebraska, the highway crossed by parades of fat clouds trailing veils of mist with lakes of sunshine in between. Traffic was light but restless, speed vipers struggling through parades of more cautious cars and then blazing on ahead once free. The impatient opportunists irritated Yves, who did his best to open up the way so they could sail past him right into the radar traps. He chuckled to himself moments later as they passed the speeders pulled over at the side of the highway, hemmed in by braces of patrol cars with winking bubble lights.

Yves also noticed the way Alishaer tensed and perspired whenever police vehicles were in view. He said, "Don't have your papers, huh?"

"I'm sorry?"

"You're an illegal. Don't bother to deny it. I wasn't born yesterday, pal."

Alishaer looked sheepish and nodded. "I will get my papers," he promised earnestly. "My cousin in New York will help me."

Yves shrugged. "Can't say as I blame you, Al. Everybody in the world wants to come to America. You know that song? On the boats and on the planes, they're comin' to America; never looking back again, they're comin' to America -- today?"

"No sir."

"Well, Neil Diamond is crud anyway. No big loss." Yves paused and assumed a more serious look as his eyes remained pinned to the road. "Was it a tough time for you, getting over here?"

Alishaer's lips twitched. "There were some hardships for me."

"Like what?"

The boy said nothing for a moment. "It must suffice to say that...some people will do anything for hope of better life."

"Sure, but I mean like in general," persisted Yves. "Did you stow away on a ship or what?"

Alishaer squirmed. "Please sir. It is not a subject I like to open, Mr. Yves -- with the respect that is due." He took a deep breath. "It is behind me now. You can understand this?"

Yves glanced over at his passenger. "I can respect that. Gotta keep your eye on the prize, huh?"

Alishaer nodded nervously. Yves turned back to the road. Alishaer's discomfort give him the willies. He badly wanted to change the subject because the silence was too thick. After a few minutes he wondered aloud awkwardly whether Alishaer would like to listen to something other than Johnny Cash.

"You're probably not up on our music, but we got a lot of it. I have some CDs. Anything you want, really: country, western, bluegrass..."

"In Turkmenistan we get often the music of Cherry Nuk-Nuk."

"What the hell is that? Like Turkish folk music?"

"No sir, she is the world's most spectacular Inuit pop singer."

"From Alaska?"

"No sir, from Canada."

"Canada, huh? Well." Yves frowned. "I don't really hold with foreign music."

They listened to more Johnny Cash. The sun set behind them. Yves sank into driving space. After passing through the pulsing turnpikes of Omaha the traffic changed, a new melange with a diminished western influence and a bewildering aftertaste of Jersey-style lane defense; at the core a steady thread of clockwork shipping fleets, lines of vessels manned by men Yves could give a friendly nod to.

The citizen band was quiet. Mumbles and squelches.

He glanced over at his passenger who was again sleeping fitfully, hugging himself tightly and rolling his head back and forth. Poor kid.

Before Des Moines Yves pulled into a Texaco to fuel up and grab some chow. Alishaer was preoccupied, quiet, eating mechanically. Yves felt bad. He knew he'd stirred up some mud by asking the kid about his ordeals. He wanted to make it up to him somehow. "Listen," said Yves as he lit up a Camel; "you want to see something cool?"

Alishaer looked up. "Something that is cool?"

Yves nodded and paid the bill, then waved Alishaer after him as he strode out to the lot, glistening under the harsh fluorescents from the recent rain. Under such light everybody looked exhausted and jaundiced, a little bit like ghouls. Yves paused at the rear door of his rig's long white trailer.

"Now," he announced, "I've signed non-disclosures up the wazoo about this stuff, so you got to promise me this is just between us. Right?"

"Right," said Alishaer, eyes glued to the steel doors.

"You know what gives America an edge over everybody else in the world?" he asked leadingly.

"Hard work?" guessed Alishaer.

"Well yeah," admitted Yves, "but what does all that hard work lead to? I'll tell ya: technology. America's got the greatest technology anywhere. And, you know: the rest of the world don't know the half of it." He allowed himself a little smile. "I guarantee you ain't never seen anything like this."

Yves stepped up on the bumper and unlocked a small panel. It swung open to reveal a tiny keypad upon which he tapped a long code. From inside the trailer came the quadruple snap of heavy locks disengaging. "I'm only supposed to open her up for inspections, but I'll fudge the log and say I had to check something."

"Okay," said Alishaer breathlessly.

Yves swung open one of the twin doors, then leaned down and offered his hand to help Alishaer up. The kid was surprisingly light. Alishaer blinked in the somber blue glow of the inspection lights, attempting to focus on the hazy forms arrayed beyond a taut wall of plastic sheeting.

Alishaer's eyes went wide. "Are they...?"

Yves nodded with a satisfied grunt. "That's right, Al," he said. "Robots."

Alishaer was transfixed by the rows of motionless shadows, his brow knitted. Upon those closest to the sheet the feeble blue inspection light revealed braided hair, tranquil faces, closed eyes, limp hands, legs locked like horses. "They are all women," he whispered.

Yves looked at his boots and cleared his throat. "Well, yeah son, these here speak to exactly what I was talking about. In America we got men so rich and so smart they don't have time for girls. But they're still men, and they've got needs. Needs nothing inflatable can fill, right?"

Alishaer smiled uncertainly, baffled but fascinated.

"They need something that really looks like a woman," said Yves, thumbs in his belt, "but something you can switch off when there's work needing doing."

"They are like dolls?"

Yves frowned. "Well, maybe. Dolls that dress themselves, and walk around, and even talk to you a little. Dolls with the AI in them. Dolls that'll run you about a quarter billion a piece."

"Amazing," admitted Alishaer.

The trucker grinned, then wiped it away with his knuckle. He unzipped a slit in the plastic and waved Alishaer closer. The air smelled like flowers. Each female form stood in a narrow cylinder with a modest collection of accessories bundled in plastic at their feet. "This batch looks all Asian," said Yves. He snorted. "Asians are real popular." He fished a keycard out of his jacket and flashed it through a slot on the base of the closest container.

A pink light winked on from above, and the woman opened her eyes.

Alishaer gasped. Yves chuckled. "No shit, huh?" he said, elbowing the boy in the ribs in a friendly way. "Pardon my language," he added.

"She is...not real?"

Yves shook his head. "Hell no, Al. That's what I'm saying. This is technology." He rapped suddenly on the side of the container, making Alishaer jump but causing no response in the woman. "See that, Al? She doesn't even flinch."

Alishaer touched his face nervously and backed against the plastic wall. "She blinks!" he whispered.

"Well of course she blinks," chortled Yves. "Like I said, they're supposed to look real. Realer than real. It's really something, huh?"

Alishaer was sweating. "I am needing some air, Mr. Yves, sir." He began to pat the sheet wall in search of the zippered opening. "I am dizzy, sir." He found the slit and fell over himself on the way out.

Yves shut everything up and then hopped to the pavement and swung closed the doors. Alishaer sat on a concrete parking buttress, hugging himself and staring at the stars forlornly. "I am sorry, Mr. Yves," he said quietly. "I did not mean to spoil the cool thing."

The trucker kicked a couple of stones around. "Forget about it. Some guys it freaks out. I thought it was kind of creepy myself the first time I saw them, honestly. You know?"

Alishaer nodded.

"Like I said, forget about it. Don't let it get to you. Eye on the prize, right?"

Alishaer nodded again.

"We should get back on the road," said Yves.


Mark said...

Robots. I bet nobody saw it coming, buy anyone who has read your other work is not surprised.

I'm thinking that if I owned those robots, I'm sure not letting the driver have the codes and keys to open up the case. The back of the truck, sure, but the container for the robot itself? Yikes.

Anonymous said...

Canada does not count as foreign. No offense or anything, but in order to qualify for the notion of "Foreign" in the average American mind you need to have either an ocean in between us and you, be on another continent, or speak another language. It helps if 95% of the citizenry cannot locate you on a globe.

No offense, but Canada is frequently referred to as "The 51st State". This has nothing to do with the Samuel L. Jackson movie by the same title.


Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Mark,

My thought there, regarding access, is that the driver may be required to facilitate the inspection of his cargo at borders or weighing stations.

I did actually have more backstory detailing what exactly Yves' relationship is with the company he ships for at this specific point in his career, but I ultimately cut the passages because they slowed down the action too much.

I cannot comment more on access to the robots themselves until you've all read Part Five, though.

Dear Teddy,

There is an element of parody in my depiction of Yves' Americanness, I cannot deny it.

Dear Compu73E,

The Edward X. Hulver character was first conceived in an informal writing project on HuSi in which I wrote a short story based entirely on plot/character/setting suggestions from readers. There was also a follow-up story mythologizing the cultural battle between K5 and HuSi (two collaborative media websites, for those not in the know).

Both stories can be found on my website, but neither has a direct link. You have to follow in-line links from other stories.

Special service is provided to commenters, however, so here are the direct links to the first and second Ed Hulver stories:

1) The Rule of Glittering Veal

2) The Red Dart of Destiny

Other Ed Hulver stories have subsequently been penned by other members of HuSi during a themed writing contest ignited by Ana earlier this year, including my own contribution in which Ed is tangled in a plot to assasinate Tom Cruise.

Since then I've enjoyed inserting Ed into a story wherever I can. As a reader you've got to know that whatever he's doing and wherever he's doing it, it's really just a front so he can continue his war to save the world from evil leprechauns. Um.

Thanks for commenting.

Cheeseburger Brown

Moksha Gren said...

I thought I was prepard for anything to be in the back of the truck...but I'll admit that I was not ready for sex doll robots. In retrospect, I should have at least kept robots in mind as an option. But alas...I did not. Curiouser and curioser

gl. said...

cherry! i can't believe how delighted i am to see her name here. sex robots, though... we'll see. if anyone can write about sex robots and not make me gag, it's you. :)

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Simon,

I was indeed thinking of Real Doll (TM) when I first conceived this story, right on the money.

Dear Moksha,

Scifi finds a way to bleed in there, doesn't it? I can't help it, damn it.

Dear Gretchin,

Eventually we'll have to learn about Cherry's origins and how she came to rise to fame, won't we? That should be interesting.

Cheeseburger Brown

Moksha Gren said...

Why should you try to help it? I, for one, love finding pieces of the artist in the art. You are a man who loves bring on the robots. Just don't ask me not to smile knowingly when they appear ;)

On a totally unrelated note, I find myself thinking of Cherry Nuk-Nuk excessively. She pops into my head without warning pretty much anytime I'm not at work. Now, I wish I could say this was becasue she's such a great character that I've become obsessed with her. But the truth is that in my life as a Daddy to a two-month old daughter, I come into nearly constant contact with the Nuk brand pacifier from Gerber. So, hopefully it will give you some joy to know that on a very regular basis, I am sitting in Norah's nursery at 5 in the morning, trying to rock her back to sleep...thinking about "the world's most spectacular Inuit pop singer." And even though it takes some help from the Gerber company to achieve it, isn't this exactly the kind of mental infestation writers dream of inflicting upon their readers?

Anonymous said...

I don't know, Cheeseberger. I think I agree with Terry. In fact, I think I might take it a step further.

The more parocial the American, the more likely he/she is to think of Canadians as Americans who say "eh" a lot. The more educated/well-traveled the American, the more likely that American is to see Canada as a separate place, with -- despite the best efforts of American media -- its own culture and sense of identity.

So I think Yves' statement about "foreign music" is actually cutting against the stereotype. It seems really unlikely to me that Yves would see Canadian music as "foreign."

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Balrog,

Well, I'm starting to appreciate that that particular exchange may be a joke that is fundamentally inaccessible to Americans.

Humour doesn't always work cross-culturally, I reckon.

Cheeseburger Brown